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What Kind of Film Stock Should I Buy?

By Christina Blanarovich on March 21st 2016

Just as there are a ridiculous number of options when choosing a film camera, there are an equally large number of film stocks that will greatly affect your final image. The beauty of film is that each film stock renders color and grain differently. I love using ALL the film stocks because each shines in different light and situations. Let’s start with my favorite, the black and white films.

[REWIND: WHAT KIND OF FILM CAMERA SHOULD I BUY?]

Black and White Film

christina zen fuji across rated at 100 indoors Leica M6

Fuji across rated at 100 indoors | Leica M6

Black and white film is timeless and classic. Removing the color removes the distractions from the environment and allows you to focus in on the emotions at play. If I could shoot an entire wedding in black and white, I would. I just adore the feel of it. For bright sun and good lighting (even indoors), I love Fuji Acros 100. It’s punchy and contrasty and just nails black and white for me. I’m not a gray person, as I prefer a higher contrast black and white, so Acros really delivers.

Tri-x 400 rated at 1600 pushed plus 2 indoors contax 645

Tri-x 400 rated at 1600 pushed plus 2 indoors Contax 645

If I don’t have as much light, or I need to push the film (pushing means you are essentially shooting the film as though it were a higher ISO; it adds lots of contrast, and you still need good light, but more on this later), I usually fall back on Kodak Tri-X 400. It’s easy to work with and looks great pushed to 3200 or 6400. Again, I love the contrast, and you will need to if you push this film.

ilford delta 3200 rated at 1600 developed normally contax645

Ilford Delta 3200 rated at 1600 developed normally Contax645

For those who like a softer look, Ilford HP5 is a 400-speed film and also pushes well. In really low light situations, I love using Ilford 3200. It can get SUPER grainy, though, and I’m not a fan of the 35mm version of this for that reason. I prefer to shoot this film stock rated at 1600 and develop normally. It reduces the grain and makes for lovely, soft images. Its a great film choice for getting ready or reception photos.

Color Film

When it comes to choosing a color film stock, there are a lot of amazing choices. I’m only going to talk about the professional stocks, not the older consumer stocks (which, by the way, are my favorite for shooting my family) or slide film. Remember, the world of color film is so vast, it’s worth finding expired rolls and experimenting (just not on paying clients)!

The amazing thing about film is the ability the photographer has to manipulate the final product just by metering and using light differently. The one main rule you want to keep in mind with film is that, unlike digital, where we tend to underexpose and bring up the image in post to retain highlights, film does not like being underexposed. Most color film needs some level of overexposure to really bring out the tones and richness.

Fuji 400H rated at 400 Contax645

Fuji 400H rated at 400 Contax645

Fuji 400H is a color film that is widely used and loved. It’s known for its pastel colors and softer palette, but can be rich and colorful too, if the photographer chooses to shoot that way. Fuji 400H loves light. I mean looooovesss light. It’s a 400 ISO film but is generally rated at 200 ISO or even 100 ISO! It can be overexposed up to 6 stops and still looks fantastic. It can also be rated at box speed in good light and look amazing. This film is tricky indoors, but shines in gorgeous sunlight. The way Fuji 400H renders green tones is to die for. Skin tones have a more peachy-pink undertone as well.

[REWIND: EASY EDIT: HOW TO CREATE A FILMIC MATTE PHOTO USING LIGHTROOM IN JUST TWO CLICKS]

Kodak Portra comes in three ISOs: 160, 400 and 800. In general, Portra film stocks have a more yellow based skin tone and warmer greens than Fuji. However the benefit of Portra is that it can be pushed (shot at a higher ISO and developed longer in the lab) much more easily than Fuji, and with more consistent results. Plus the range of ISO films with similar (not identical) tonality really allows you to use one stock for more consistent results as the light changes throughout a wedding day. Sure, you can fix in post, but that’s one of the main draws of film – less time behind the computer!

Portra160 rated at 320 pushed plus 1 Contax645

Portra 160 rated at 320 pushed plus 1 Contax645

Portra 160 is amazing. It works wonderfully for darker skin tones, bringing out color and richness. It can be shot at 100 ISO for a softer look, or at 320 and pushed +1 in the lab for more color and contrast. In good window light, it can be stunning when used indoors.

Portra400 rated at 320 Contax645

Portra400 rated at 320 Contax645

Portra 400 is my go-to wedding film. The 400 ISO rating gives me enough leeway to shoot almost anywhere. I rate it at 320 and know I will get beautiful images. When I need more ISO from it, I can push it to 800 and even 1600 with minimal grain increase or color shift.

Portra 800 rated at 640 Contax645 PHOTOVISION lab

Portra 800 rated at 640 Contax645 PHOTOVISION lab

Portra 800 is literally my all time favorite film. The colors are rich, glorious and make my images look like a painting. I just adore this film. I usually rate it around 640 ISO and get great results, but it does need pretty good overall light. However, Portra 800 is NOT a film to shoot indoors under tungsten lighting. I’ve shot this film rated at 200 ISO before, and it looks incredible. It needs light, despite the higher ISO rating.

Ektar 100 rated at 100 Contax645

Ektar 100 rated at 100 Contax645

Another Kodak color film I love is Ektar 100. It’s an odd film, super colorful and very contrasty with a tendency for reddish skin tones. Don’t let that scare you since a good lab will be able to fix that with no problem. Ektar is my favorite color film for travel photography. The vibrancy it gives to landscapes and cities is amazing. Ektar should NOT be overexposed unless you want everyone to be really red. Rate it at 100 and shoot away. Or, push it to 400, or even 800 and watch it perform magic! If you want to shoot film indoors in low or tungsten lighting, then you should try CineStill 800.

If you want to shoot film indoors in low or tungsten lighting, then you should try CineStill 800. It’s a newer and unique film that is tungsten balanced. Don’t try shooting this outside during the day, though, unless you like the smurf look. But indoors and at night, this film shines.

As with anything, the best way to choose a film is to get out there and SHOOT! Try each stock and see which makes your heart sing!

Christina Blanarovich is a film photographer based out of NY. She has a passion for all things Nutella and Star Wars and is nice enough to share both with her husband and two little boys. An avid traveler/adventurer, Christina’s work has taken her to many locations around the world, for both photography and teaching. As a former educator and track coach, she loves helping others explore and reach their potential (and also loves telling people what to do, sometimes in a loud voice). When she isn’t geeking out on film photography, she loves adventuring with her boys, kicking butt in Muay Thai and watching dorky sci-fi shows.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Amy Corrigan

    Great article! I haven’t used Portra 160 yet and am working through my first roll of Portra 800 film. LOVE Portra 400 and Acros 100. I can’t wait to work my way through the Ilford’s … it is on my bucket list to shoot them all!

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  2. Aleksander Eriksen

    I just bought 600-film for polaroid to make a lifestyle portrait wall, I hope it arrives soon from Impossible Project. :D I hope someone can make a guide on how to shoot and manage 120mm film/etc and get it digitised. The quality of medium format film is just so nice.

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    • Christina Blanarovich

      Hi Aleksander! I’m excited for you and your polaroid shooting! Keep checking back. I will be working on more articles for film shooters in the near future! As for managing my 120 film, I send it to my lab (The FINDLab in Utah) and they do all the developing and scanning for me. I get the negatives back as well as the digital scans so I can work with them and share. Win win in my book. There are so many great labs everywhere. I am sure you can find one close to you that you love!

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  3. Ralph Hightower

    I’m glad to see that my favorite films were mentioned: Kodak Ektar 100 (great outdoor film), Portra 400, and Kodak Tri-X. One thing that I like to use when shooting B&W outdoors are B&W contrast filters
    With Ektar, I was amazed that I got decent handheld photos in predawn hours in a lit parking lot and also under fluorescent lighting when I had to load Kodak BW400CN pushed to 1600 for an historic event.

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    • Christina Blanarovich

      Ektar is pretty awesome. You can even rate it at 400 and push it really well! It’s really one of my favorite stocks!

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  4. Colin Woods

    Nice piece. It makes me want to shoot more film – I was recently given an almost complete darkroom and as soon as I get to buy the chemistry (nothing like that here in rural Quebec) I’ll get going.

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    • Christina Blanarovich

      Hi Colin. Don’t let not having a dark room set up hold you back! I have two little kids and currently do not develop my own film. I send it out to my lab (The FINDLab in Utah) and they do all the work for me! It’s great. There are so many great labs out there. Shoot away!

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